In 1921 when the Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed the properties of the Black inhabitants living in Greenwood in the U.S., a Black woman made history. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander became America’s first Black economist at the age of 32 after receiving her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. But due to her race, nobody would hire her as an economist. Thus, a few years later, she got a law degree and became an attorney instead.
She went on to have a remarkable career as a civil rights lawyer. And even though Alexander was not employed as an economist, she used her training to press for equal rights and opportunities for African-American workers. Indeed, she championed civil rights for marginalized groups, including Black women, paving the way for today’s Black economists, policymakers, lawyers, among others.
It certainly wasn’t easy for Alexander despite coming from a notable family. Her father, who unfortunately left her when she was only a year old, was the first Black American to graduate in law from the University of Pennsylvania and her aunt was the first Black woman certified to practice medicine in Alabama. Her grandfather was a well-known bishop while her uncle was a famous painter.
Alexander also attended a reputable high school before starting as an undergraduate in Penn’s School of Education in 1916, where she faced racism from students and authorities. Her colleagues hardly spoke with her. She was initially denied a fellowship to pursue graduate work after a librarian claimed she meddled with another student’s books.
“Such circumstances made a student either a dropout or a survivor so strong that she could not be overcome, regardless of the indignities,” Alexander later said.
In June 1921, she was elated when she became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in economics. According to the Economist, “Her dissertation was prompted by the migration of 40,000 southern blacks to Philadelphia’s factories during the first world war. Alexander wanted to know whether the mostly ‘untrained, illiterate’ newcomers would adapt to an industrial economy or drag down Philadelphia’s existing black population, a community ‘of culture, education and some financial means’.”
But that joy of being the first Black economist was short-lived when she found it difficult to get a job that matched her talents. “…because of her race, nobody would hire her as an economist”, a report by NPR said. Alexander later spent “two lonely years” with an insurance firm in North Carolina and became a housewife for another year before going back to Penn to get a law degree.
She became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school in 1927. In subsequent years, she and her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, helped desegregate various institutions in Philadelphia, including hotels, cinemas and theatres. Any victim of segregation who was willing to appear in court could go to them for assistance without charge.
And apart from marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to demand civil rights for Black Americans, Alexander also made history as the first woman to be the secretary of the National Bar Association and would later be appointed to President Harry Truman’s Committee on Human Rights, whose report led to the calling for a federal law against lynching, the protection of the right to vote as well as a law against poll taxes.
Although Alexander worked as a lawyer until her retirement in 1982, she never abandoned economics as can be found in her speeches and writings. “Racial discrimination undermined Alexander’s life as well as the collective memory of her work and breadth of economic thought,” Nina Banks, associate professor of economics and an affiliated faculty member in Women’s and Gender Studies and in Africana Studies at Bucknell University wrote in a recent Washington Post piece.
“But the speeches that she left behind attest to her brilliance and the relevance of her prescient observations to our current political economy. Indeed, she identified economic deprivation as the major obstacle for political, racial and economic equality, all of which remain elusive today. Her solution—full employment job guarantees—may be what we need to finally address persistent job discrimination, involuntary unemployment, inadequate wages and the racial disparities these injustices exacerbate.”
Decades after her death, it is worrying that economics hasn’t made much progress bringing Black women into the profession. A total of about twelve hundred economics PhDs were issued in 2019. Four of those PhDs were issued to Black women, NPR said.
A pair of young Black women have formed the Sadie Collective to help more Black women pursue careers in economics. The Sadie Collective, named for Alexander, recently celebrated 100 years of her legacy.